Art and Culture

27 January, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is from a different conversation, worth it on its own.

All art is produced in a cultural context. As a creative person, your ideas don’t come to you from space aliens, they come to you from your own mind, which exists in a cultural frame. A modern white American fantasy novelist talking about how his black-skinned evil dudes are awesome is fundamentally different than a 7th century Tang poet talking about how his black skinned evil dudes are awesome (although not that different: China of that period had colorism, although it was more of a class thing than a race thing.)

That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong about introducing problematic material into your fiction. But good fiction is critical of the self. (likewise, bad fiction is uncritical of the self). Writing (which I’m using here as a sub for all creative arts) is more than being a transcriptionist to some alien idea entity. It’s an exercise in self-examination or a lack thereof, and it provokes in the reader self-examination or a lack thereof. Since the author and the reader both exists in cultural contexts, this extends into an examination of culture as a whole, or a lack of examination (reification) of culture as a whole.

None of what I’m talking about is, like, forced in any way. This is just something that all media does. All media drags in tropes from the society around it, and either uses them critically or uncritically. All media, when read or watched or listened to, brings tropes from the audience’s society to mind, and is critical or uncritical of them.

This isn’t all cut and dried, either. Something can be critical in some respects, uncritical in others. In fact, most media are.

But here’s the other part: Good fiction is humane. It may be cruel to the reader, but it ultimately seeks to make the reader a better person (even if that is simply “a more entertained person”) and to improve their lives. Cultural tropes are often quite negative and harmful to members of a society, and their presence in fiction (particularly in “light entertainment fiction,” where they are less expected) can be quite directly and immediately harmful to people in the society*. This is not something which I speak about in the abstract: I’ve suffered real immediate personal harm, in terms of social and economic rejection and also in terms of days lost to depression, from uncritical trope parroting regarding rape survivors, or Jews.

So if an author who is concerned with work being humane, with it benefiting his audience (including himself), it is a best practice to not uncritically repeat harmful cultural tropes. This doesn’t mean “don’t engage harmful cultural tropes” because that’s clearly BS. It means “maybe you shouldn’t engage them uncritically.” Be aware that this is a sharp, dangerous thing that you’re playing with, and you might cut yourself or others.

Just as a knife can be used to harm or heal, so can fiction, because it is that powerful, culturally, psychologically, and spiritually. If you’re handling a dangerous trope, the only concern is to make sure that the fiction around it is particularly good, with the best interests of yourself and your audience at heart.

This is not to say that fiction which uncritical parrots harmful tropes is necessarily wrong or should necessarily be dismissed. Some great works of literature fall into that category. It would be a tragedy to lose The Tempest, or Huckleberry Finn, or Lord of the Rings. I’m not advocating that, and if you don’t understand why I’m not, please do ask.

*It can also be damaging to the society as a whole.

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